Russian Masters Program Notes



Sergey Prokofiev

Sergey Prokofiev
Selections from the Ballet Suites of Romeo and Juliet, Op. 64

While still a student in the St. Petersburg Conservatory before the Russian Revolution of 1917, Sergey Prokofiev was already known as Russian music’s enfant terrible. His First Piano Concerto in particular, with its spiky dissonances and unromantic tone, clashed with the taste of the prevailing musical establishment and his teachers at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, especially its head, the conservative Alexander Glazunov.

Apolitical and appalled by the mayhem created by the Revolution, Prokofiev left his native country in 1918, settling first in the United States and then in Paris. But he never felt comfortable on foreign soil. By 1933, homesickness was consuming him: “The air of foreign lands does not inspire me because I am Russian and there is nothing more harmful to me than to live in exile,” he told a reporter in Paris. He was spending more and more time in Russia, although his family was still living in France. In 1936 he returned permanently to Moscow, aware that he would have to change his compositional style to satisfy Soviet cultural demands. He was never again able to travel abroad.

The idea of composing a ballet based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, a relatively “safe” lyrical subject, came to Prokofiev in the spring of 1935. A ballet on the same topic, written in 1925 by the English composer Constant Lambert for impresario Sergey Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, may have given him the idea.

After returning to the Soviet Union, Prokofiev received a commission for the ballet from the Kirov Ballet in Leningrad; when Kirov backed out, the Moscow Bolshoy Theater took it over. Prokofiev tried to adhere as closely as possible to Shakespeare’s play, using both dance and mime to convey the story. When his innovative and complex score frightened the Bolshoy and the cast declared the music “undanceable,” Prokofiev revised the score. Their insistence, however, that the ballet have a happy ending turned out to be more than he could stomach. Romeo and Juliet was dead in the water.

In the end, a hugely successful premiere took place in Brno, Czechoslovakia, in December 1938. Embarrassed, the Kirov took it on once again and after much wrangling, the ballet was finally premiered in Leningrad in January 1940. Galina Ulanova, the ballerina who danced Juliet, expressed the difficulties surrounding the production in a humorous parody of Shakespeare’s epilogue to the play:

“There never was a story of more woe
Than Prokofiev’s music for Romeo”

Romeo and Juliet is a long ballet with 52 numbers, but the rapid switches between dramatic and lyrical sections assure that the tension is maintained. One of the reasons for the ballet’s immediate acceptance was the fact that by the time of the premiere, the music was already well-known. In view of the production delays, and never one to let good music go to waste, Prokofiev arranged two orchestral suites from the ballet score, which premiered in 1936 and 1937. During the same period he also made a piano arrangement of ten excerpts and performed them in Moscow. He assembled the Third Suite from the ballet in 1946.

It is common practice now for conductors to excerpt their own suites from the ballet. These suites, like Prokofiev’s own, do not necessarily adhere to the logical sequence of the story but are combined to be musically balanced.

1. The Montagues and Capulets combines sections of from Act I, in which the Duke forbids the two families, on the pain of death, to continue their feud, with the heavy-footed dance scene from the ballroom scene of Act II.

2. Dance of the Five Couples is from the folk festival scene which opens Act II

3. Masks accompanies the arrival of the masked Romeo and friends.

4. Dance of the Maidens with Lilies. Juliet’s maidens come in her chamber to wake her at the morning of her wedding with Paris. She appears to be dead and her family mourns.

5. Death of Tybalt; combines various sections from the end of Act II, including the duel with Romeo and Tybalt’s death. The initial theme accompanies the skirmish (Leonard Bernstein learned a lot from this section). Romeo stabs Tybalt about halfway through. The threnody that concludes the suite is the turning point of the tragedy.


Alban Berg, 1885-1935; A death mask

Alban Berg
Violin Concerto

Arnold Schoenberg, the creator of serialism and atonality, was the composition teacher of Anton Webern and Alban Berg. Together, the three composers made up what is known as the Second Viennese School, whose most salient stylistic feature was serialism, or the twelve-tone style – a style easier to explain than to hear. A serial composition is built upon a series, or row, of all twelve tones of the chromatic scale in which no one tone is repeated. The notes are arranged so that they in no way suggest a tonal center, or key. The function of the tone row is analogous to that of key and mode in tonal music.

Although he virtually worshiped his teacher, Berg always gave his music a distinctly lyrical, even a romantic note. All his works, not just the early ones, retain a demonstrably melodic quality, and he often combined serialism with hints of tonality. Following the premiere of his serial opera Wozzeck a wag dubbed him “The Puccini of the twelve-tone system.”

Berg led a richly neurotic life. Often depressed, secretive and hypochondriacal, he was an obsessive numerologist who believed that specific numbers had a kind of astrological control over his life and those of the people he was close to. Much of his music, including the Violin Concerto, is full of arcane numerological meanings coupled with an intense sensuality. Much of it centered around three important women in his life: Mizzi, a family servant girl with whom he had a daughter at age 17; his wife Helene; and his lover and inspiration for the last ten years of his life, Hanna Fuchs-Robettin. Much of Berg’s kabalistic symbolism has not yet been deciphered.

Early in 1935, violinist Louis Krasner commissioned Berg to write a violin concerto, commenting that up to that time, serialism had always been considered cerebral, intellectual and mathematical. He challenged Berg to prove otherwise: to write a serial work with the same expressiveness and lyricism as a tonal one. But the composer, who was a slow worker, was busy at the time on his opera Lulu and initially refused the commission.

Then, in April, tragedy struck. Berg and his wife, who were childless, had formed a close relationship with Manon Gropius, the beautiful gifted daughter of Alma Mahler (Gustav being one of Berg’s idols) and her second husband, the architect Walter Gropius. Born in 1916, Manon was an aspiring actress and dancer who was stricken with polio, leaving her paralyzed from the waist down. When she died in 1935 Berg was devastated. He put Lulu aside – the opera was never completed – and went to work feverishly on the Concerto, dedicating it “To the Memory of an Angel.”

The Concerto’s four movements are combined into two larger parts. It opens with a ten-measure introduction of pianissimo arpeggios for clarinet, bass clarinet, harp and the solo violin playing the open strings, G, D, A, E, After the four instruments explore arpeggios beginning on different pitches, the bassoons begin the main part of the movement with an almost tonal accompaniment, and the soloist presents the tone row as a rising arpeggio from G B-flat D F-sharp A C E G-sharp B C-sharp D. Once the row is clearly established in the ear, the violin presents the main theme based on the row. And to make the atonal motive more accessible, Berg blasts out the theme in the horn and trumpet while the soloist weaves a filigree around it. On the most fundamental level, however, the most important and obvious quality of this first section is the arpeggio figure, as much a unifying thematic force as the tone row.

In the Allegretto second movement, which follows without pause, the clarinets start a theme taken up immediately by the soloist and other instruments in turn in the rhythm of a Ländler, the forerunner of the waltz. The dance rhythm suggests Manon’s cheerfulness and vitality, as well as her dashed ambition. Berg, however, has not abandoned the material from the first movement, the ever-present arpeggios and the related theme. In a sense, the dance-like second movement in triple time is analogous to the minuet/trio of a classical symphony. At the end, for the “trio” melody, Berg includes a warm, romantic passage in the solo violin of a jolly Austrian folksong – although presented in a melancholy, almost ethereal way. The meaning behind the folksong remained a mystery until the death of Berg’s widow in 1976 when the composer’s old letters and diaries came to light and his youthful indiscretion revealed. It became clear that Berg had associated the folksong with his youthful love Mizzi.

The third movement, Allegro, depicts the shattering tragedy of Manon’s death. The orchestra opens harshly and dissonantly, leading to a cadenza-like section recalling the gentler mood of the second movement. Although the timpani and bass drum at first seem funereal, given Berg’s penchant for symbolism, subsequent passages may illustrate Manon’s gradual paralysis in a passage where the tempo slows and the rhythm becomes increasingly unstable, the violin stammering with effort. The Ländler rhythm reappears, distorted with dissonance. Berg signals the actual death near the end of the movement, where he has written in the score “HÖHEPUNKT” (Highpoint). The crashing dissonance blends into the Adagio and its ultimate resolution.

There is considerable controversy over the conclusion to the Concerto. Berg had decided to integrate into it a Bach chorale, combining it with the atonal orchestral and violin parts in the manner of a chorale prelude. The final Adagio is based on J.S. Bach’s chorale “Es ist genug” (It is enough) from Cantata BWV 60, a prayer for deliverance from earthly suffering. Why this chorale over Bach’s hundreds of others? The unusual mode of the melody (major with a sharpened fourth, or tritone, the so-called “Devil in music” during the Middle Ages) fits the atonal environment with the traditionally most dissonant and unstable interval.

Berg begins the chorale immediately in the solo violin, accompanied by the arpeggiated row in the bassoon. He later creates an organ-like effect by scoring the chorale for clarinets. There are two variations on the chorale melody, the first in which the violin plays the variation accompanied by a trumpet with the chorale melody as a cantus firmus. There is a reprise of the theme from the first movement, as well as fragmented, touching reminiscences of the Ländler, the folksong and the chorale accompanied by eerie harmonies. The violin, in the closing moments, returns to the arpeggiated tone row of the Concerto’s opening measures; but with the orchestral harmonies, it becomes tonal, practically singable as the Concerto comes to a quiet close.

All his life, Berg had had premonitions of death, and this time he was right. A few days after he finished the Concerto, he developed an abscess on the lower part of his back that he attributed to a wasp sting. The abscess deteriorated into septicemia and he died on December 24th. Krasner premiered the Concerto three months later, in March 1936, at the ISCM Festival in Barcelona.

According to the composer and Berg scholar George Perle, the first movement, Andante, contains a musical portrait of the dead girl, a representation of catastrophe and finally, her death and transfiguration.


Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36

In the roster of Russian nationalist composers at the end of the nineteenth century, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was an oddity. Although an ardent nationalist, he did not espouse the Nationalist movement in music, symbolized by such composers as Modest Mussorgsky, Aleksander Borodin, Mily Balakirev and Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov. Despite the many folk elements in his music, his great melodic gift enabled him to develop his own themes and only occasionally use borrowed melodies. Instead of nationalistic themes, his music usually was a vehicle to express his personal anguish and erratic mood swings.

The son of a mining engineer, Tchaikovsky had an economically comfortable but unsettled childhood, as his father relocated from one post to the other. He was a precocious child with a gift for words, reading French and German at age six; the seven-year-old started to write a biography of Joan of Arc.

The family recognized Tchaikovsky’s musical talents, but in 1852 he was entered into St. Petersburg’s School of Jurisprudence, which he attended for seven years. It was there that he first became aware of his homosexuality; he took its negative social implications seriously, especially the effect it could have on his family. His emotional conflict exacerbated extreme mood swings with frequent bouts of deep depression and self-doubt that dogged him from childhood until his death.

The School of Jurisprudence provided a well-rounded education, including music, and Tchaikovsky also availed himself also to the many cultural opportunities of the city. After graduation he was assigned a job in the Ministry of Justice, but music became more and more the center of his cultural life.

His serious musical studies began in 1861; a year later, he was accepted into the first class of the newly opened St. Petersburg Conservatory, graduating in 1865. His principal teacher was pianist and composer Anton Rubinstein, whose strong personality instilled in Tchaikovsky compositional discipline: to sketch quickly to the end of a work, then score; work every day, and hold to music as a sacred calling.

After graduation, Tchaikovsky was recruited by Nikolay Rubinstein, Anton’s brother, for the new music conservatory in Moscow. But he was not a good teacher, ever dogged by feelings of insecurity. He also resented the time it took away from composing.

Things were actually looking up for Tchaikovsky during the early part of 1877. He had his first contact with Nadezhda von Meck, the wealthy widow of a railroad builder, who fell in love with Tchaikovsky’s music and arranged to pay him a large annual stipend. The only stipulation she attached to her generous help was that they never meet in person, although they corresponded voluminously. In May he started work on the Fourth Symphony, but in July came his disastrous marriage to one of his students, Antonina Milyukova, who had fallen madly in love with him and had written to him confessing her devotion. Although Tchaikovsky, who was homosexual, didn’t even remember the girl, he hoped the marriage would still the rumors about his sexual preference. Instead he fled Antonina after two weeks. In total despair, he made a pathetic attempt at suicide (he walked into the Moskva River, hoping to die of pneumonia) and ended up with a complete mental collapse. To recuperate, his brother took him to Switzerland and Italy, where he picked up work on the symphony, finishing it in January 1878.

Tchaikovsky dedicated the work To Mme. von Meck, expressing his confidence in the new work: “I feel in my heart that this work is the best I have ever written.” He himself did not return from abroad for the February 1878 premiere in Moscow, which was only a luke-warm success.Tchaikovsky himself contributed to the notion that the Symphony was programmatic. He wrote to his patroness:

Of course my symphony is programmatic, but this program is such that it cannot be formulated in words. That would excite ridicule and appear comic. Ought not a symphony – that is, the most lyrical of all forms – to be such a work? Should it not express everything for which there are no words, but which the soul wishes to express, and which requires to be expressed?

In Tchaikovsky’s last three symphonies, motivic unity among the movements was to take an increasingly more prominent role. The symphony opens with a sinister fanfare-like theme by the brass, which recurs as the movement unfolds.  The anxiety-laden main theme, which Tchaikovsky develops on the spot, strives towards a resolution that continually seems to elude it. The relief comes with the second theme, one of Tchaikovsky’s inimitable melodies, a waltz for solo clarinet, and a third played in counterpoint with the clarinet theme by the strings and timpani. The development, based exclusively on the main theme and the fanfare, begins quietly, slowly ramping up the emotional tension. After the recapitulation, the fanfare announces a long two-part coda with a new theme set contrapuntally against the main theme to resolve the movement on a more positive note. But just as we are starting to sit back and relax, the fanfare returns to blast us back into Tchaikovsky’s stormy reality.

The second movement, by contrast, opens with a plaintive melody on the oboe, accompanied by pizzicato strings. The oboe theme is answered by a more intense second theme in the strings. The pace picks up as the composer adds a dance-like melody. Typical Tchaikovsky anxiety mounts,  until he returns to the gentle oboe theme now in the violins, adorned with feathery ornaments in the winds recalling the accompaniment to the clarinet theme in the first movement.

The third movement, Pizzicato ostinato, is a playful diversion. It is a typical scherzo and trio. The Trio consists of a medley of tunes, the first for a pair of oboes, the second, slightly mournful Russian folk tune, also for the upper winds, and a playful brass riff with staccato playing to match the pizzicato strings from the Scherzo. The movement ends with a medley of the various themes and instrumental combinations.

While one hears subtle references to first-movement musical ideas in movements two and three, Tchaikovsky explicitly unifies the Symphony in the Finale. This last movement is the most “Russian” of Tchaikovsky’s symphonic movements and is something of a musical battle between the festive and the melancholic. After a festive opening theme, the oboe and bassoon introduce an authentic Russia folk-song (for which he was roundly condemned by his academic colleagues and the critics). Once again, however, a sprightly mood turns negative, and it is hardly surprising that the movement is brought up short towards the end by the reappearance of the grim fanfare from the opening movement – the spectre at the feast. An energetic coda, however, tips the balance towards positive territory.

Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2016